INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Habakkuk Baldonado and Ali Gaye grew up worlds apart.
Baldonado lived in Rome, learned multiple languages and was encouraged by his mother to travel and give America a try for six months. He extended the stay to six years.
Gaye was born in The Gambia, the son of a man who spent two years working on U.S. soil before moving his family to Washington state in pursuit of a better life. Gaye arrived at age 12.
Now these two edge rushers — one from Europe’s seventh-largest city, the other from Africa’s smallest mainland nation — find themselves in the same spot as perhaps the unlikeliest faces of the NFL draft’sinternational contingent.
“One day I just saw this sport on TV. I didn’t know what it was, but it looked fun,” Baldonado said with a laugh. “The whole sport is just insane. There’s nothing like it, you know, the physicality, the teamwork, the daily grind and the mental part.”
NFL officials have long tried to expand American football’s reach.
The process began with the inaugural season of the European-based World League of American Football in 1989 and now extends to international player development programs, games in Europe and Mexico City and more recently the addition of International Home Marketing Areas, pairing NFL teams with nations for advertising and fan engagement.
The payoff has increasingly appeared on draft weekend.
Last April, Greek-born defensive end George Karlaftis and Taiwanese-born receiver John Metchie both became top-50 picks. In 2021, defensive end Kwity Paye, a native of Guinea, was a first-round pick. And last season, players from nearly three dozen countries played in an NFL game.
The trend doesn’t appear to be slowing anytime soon with players such as Baldonado and Gaye on this year’s list.
Or edge rusher Thomas Incoom, who moved to the U.S. from Ghana as a teenager, started his football career as a punter-kicker in Georgia and then spent two years at Division II Valdosta State before heading to Central Michigan.
Gaye took a similar path after breaking his arm at age 5, requiring surgery that left a scar because it didn’t heal properly.
The injury helped prompt Gaye’s father, who worked for Catholic Relief Services, to seek better healthcare in the U.S. Naturally, Gaye’s initial hope was to play soccer but his school didn’t have a team. Eventually, he was talked into trying football.
Gaye began his journey with junior college stints at Arizona Western and Garden City in Kansas before playing at LSU — where he suddenly ended up on the map of NFL scouts and with the life experiences that provide perspective on what achieving his American dream would mean to his family and his country, which is smaller in size than Connecticut and less populous than Kansas,
“It’s something that you can only pray for and dream of, getting here,” he said at the league’s annual scouting combine. “This is something for me to just kind of put on for my country, put on for my people and hopefully somebody will take on the torch once I’m long gone.”
Gaye made an impact on last season’s stronger-than-expected Tigers, finishing fourth on the team in tackles for loss (six) and fifth in sacks (2 1/2) while emerging as a Day 3 prospect.
Baldonado’s trek was different.
He convinced his mother, who works for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, to let him play American football in his home country. Four years later, he was playing at Clearwater Academy in Florida, where he logged a stunning 30 1/2 sacks in one season and drew enough college interest that the coaches at Pittsburgh asked the school’s Italian Club to help recruit the promising pass rusher.
His breakout season with the Panthers came in 2021 with nine sacks and 11 1/2 tackles for loss. He also showed up to positional meetings with his own film cutups. What teammates witnessed was the student turning into a teacher.
“When I first got to Pitt, Haba really helped me learn the playbook and show me around,” said defensive tackle Calijah Kancey, a probable first-round pick. “He’s a great guy, he teaches me a lot, and I really appreciate him as a teammate and a brother.”
With a resume that includes playing at a school that regularly produces top NFL defensive linemen, perhaps Baldonado can become the NFL’s fifth Italian-born player since 1992.
Baldonado can sense the support he’s getting from a soccer-loving nation that he hopes to turn into a Super Bowl-watching country.
“My phone is blowing up with all the love and energy that’s been transferred to me,” Baldonado said. “So I’m really excited. I’ve got the whole country on my back. I’ve got to show the Italians what I can do.”
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